Food for Thought

In June Barbara Schwartz  (second from right) leads a cooking demonstration at the Crown Center Culinary Studio, sharing her talent and recipes for making gazpacho and rugelach.  Schwartz is a Crown Center Board Member and founder of Gourmet to Go. At right is Crown Center Executive Assistant Theresa Dattilo.Photo: Sarah Carmody

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

As many of us know, the Gladys and Henry Crown Center provides subsidized senior housing in University City. Crown Center also runs a Social Nutrition Program, a significant undertaking that provides delicious kosher meals to qualifying senior citizens. But, as I discovered, it does so much more.

Recognizing the critical role of food to not only fuel the body but also nurture the soul, Crown Center has developed three exciting and innovative programs to enhance the lives of all senior citizens in our community.  These transformative programs are: Circle@Crown Café, the Culinary Education Program, and Happy Planters. All take place at Crown Center, are open to residents and non-residents, and are free of charge. And the best part: Anyone of any age can participate.

Circle@Crown Café

Circle@Crown Café is an on-site café that functions much like a restaurant. The Café, which opened just after Passover this year, was created with expert input from professionals such as Doron Berber of Panera; Barbara Schwartz, founder of Gourmet to Go, and Howard Lerner, founder of Kaldi’s coffee. The food is kosher, dairy and very affordable.

Open 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Café offers a seasonal menu of breakfast and lunch specialties that can be enjoyed in the open dining room, outdoors on a lovely furnished patio, or packaged for take-out. Jean Millner, a culinary educator and cook par excellence, is the café manager. 


Randi Schenberg, community relations associate at Crown, said that on a typical day the Café is busy with residents and non-residents of every age. 

“It’s a great place to enjoy a kosher meal,” she said. “And if folks are at Crown for a program, many will come in afterwards to enjoy a cup of coffee, cappuccino, or latte from our coffee bar.” She also told me that some residents use the café like a small market, stocking up on food for the weekend when the café is closed and the meal program doesn’t operate. 

Nikki Goldstein, director of Crown Center, invited me to sample a few items from the menu. We shared cheese blintzes with a side of cantaloupe, a Mediterranean panini with a side of crisp veggie sticks, tuna salad accompanied by herb-seasoned bruschetta, and French toast with a fruit garnish. Everything was tasty and satisfying. 

The Café serves bread baked by Great Harvest Bread Company and brews coffee from Kaldi’s. Attractive melamine dishes and silverware give the Café a genuine restaurant feel. And like many cafés, this one has a tip jar. However, all the money collected in this tip jar is considered tzedakah and is used to help residents in need. 

The Café is operated by a combination of paid staff and volunteers. A representative of the Vaad Hoeir supervises the kashrut and, as Nikki Goldstein told me, has been very supportive of this initiative from the outset. 


Culinary Education Program

The Culinary Education Program is another addition to Crown Center. A new state-of-the-art classroom kitchen provides a comfortable and professional setting for participants to watch food demonstrations and participate in hands-on classes. Past classes have included: Dumplings and Games; Pierogi Making; Summer Rolls & Smoothies; and Israeli Cuisine. 

Instructors have included local restaurant chefs, nutritionists from Operation Food Search, representatives from Gateway Greening, and Crown Center staff. There are classes with holiday themes, such as Chinese New Year. In September, executive chef Jack MacMurray III of Joe Buck’s restaurant will lead a class on beekeeping, cooking with honey, and baking honey cake. (There is a $7 fee for this class and space is limited.)

“Participants are enthusiastic about being able to interact with guest chefs, share their own recipes, and learn new and exciting ways to cook,” Schenberg said. “The experience keeps everyone interested in cooking and eating.”


The Happy Planters

The Happy Planters program is a collaboration with Gateway Greening, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to empower people to garden. It sends a representative to Crown Center once a week to provide instruction and support on every aspect of gardening, from seeding to dividing to watering to harvesting. It also gives cooking demonstrations on ways to use the produce that is harvested. For example, a recent class explored ways to cook with eggplant, and another class instructed on preparation of Asian stir-fries. 

The Happy Planters program runs year-round. During the winter months, participants plant seeds in seed starter pots in the fully functioning greenhouse, which was built last year. Once the weather warms, participants transfer the plants to four rectangular above-ground beds or into their own pots, which surround the lovely patio and gazebo behind the Center.

I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the Happy Planters, Beverly Rehfeld, who moved to Crown Center just months ago.

“I’m not an experienced gardener,” she said with a smile. “In fact, my only memory of gardening was during World War II, when my family planted a Victory Garden in our front yard. I remember my mother harvesting the vegetables and preserving them in jars.” She laughed. “But I can’t remember the first thing about how she did it.”

Rehfeld, who happens to be the mother of Jewish Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld, believes the Happy Planters program is a great example of how the Crown Center encourages seniors to find enjoyment in their lives. “Learning to garden is exciting and stimulating,” she told me. “I have learned to facilitate the planting process, from preparing the earth to taking care of a garden.”

“And it’s not just recreating memories,” she emphasized. “It’s getting involved and learning to do things for yourself. I have also enjoyed meeting the diverse group of people who participate. There are a number of Asian women and men, and people from Jamaica and Egypt. And even though we may not always speak the same language, we enjoy working together in the garden.” 

One of Rehfeld’s new friends, an Asian woman who doesn’t speak English, was watering one of the gardens nearby. Rehfeld walked over to speak with her. The two of them shared a laugh over something said. I asked if I could snap a picture of them. They turned to each other and smiled, and then they each fixed their hair, put their arms around each other, and smiled for the camera. 

“We find ways to communicate,” Rehfeld said. “Besides being so inclusive, there is a real sense of community in this effort. In fact, I had an appointment yesterday and wasn’t able to participate in the program. When I got back to my apartment, the Happy Planters had left a large bag of vegetables for me from the day’s harvest.” She smiled. “That was so kind of them.”

Rehfeld took me on a stroll through the greenhouse to show me the seeds that were just beginning to sprout. We walked outside around the garden beds, where cucumbers, eggplants, sour cucumbers, peppers, and a variety of tomatoes were growing. Individual pots held fresh herbs and fig and orange trees. It is a lovely sight.

“Because this is affordable housing, programs like these add to the dignity of our residents and give them a sense of pride about where they live,” explained Florence Schachter, director of resident and community services at Crown. “We want the senior adult community to have as many options as possible to remain independent. Because our food is kosher and our programs are open to residents and non-residents, everyone in our community can benefit from them.” 

To find out more about these programs, and how to get involved, please call Crown Center at 314-991-2055. 


Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]